It was the eighth over of Australia’s chase of 324, and Shaun Marsh and David Warner were hoping to carefully curate an opening stand decisive enough to help avoid an impending whitewash on the final day of the series in Colombo. Dilruwan Perera tossed it up on to Marsh’s pads, and he flicked it away to square-leg, straight at Rangana Herath. It was a straightforward bit of fielding, for most players at least. But for Herath, it was quite the task. He just couldn’t get down quick enough, his physique hindering his attempts to … I’m going to be diplomatic here … bend. It slipped through, and cost Sri Lanka an extra couple of runs.
Onlookers burst into sniggers, but Herath soon contributed to the entertainment more willingly, by continuing to display just how severe a problem Australia have when facing spin. He returned 7 for 64, and ended as the leading wicket-taker in the series with 28 at just 12.75. Australia were whitewashed 3-0, and Herath played a massive role in humiliating the opposition. After the final wicket fell, there would have been some laughs from onlookers again. Only this time, it would have been more justified: Australia really didn’t cover themselves in glory.
That said, it is striking how throughout the series, nearly every documented work on Herath – including, admittedly, on these pages – mention his ‘stocky build’ and his ‘pot belly’ and generally alludes to his physique. Given that he’s a veritable great, one of the best left-arm spinners the game has seen, and has proven time and again that his qualities are substantial despite his physical fitness, hasn’t he done enough to not be prefixed with these epithets?
When Herath stepped out of the shadow of Muttiah Muralitharan following the latter’s retirement, he was still stuck in the 1990s – a time when the likes of Inzamam-ul-Haq, Arjuna Ranatunga and David Boon all played the game without much pressure on what an athlete’s body should look like. Despite their physique, each of them did what he was required to do, and did it well. Of course, there were the occasional jokes, but fitness was never the rage then as it is now. The cricket was more about perfecting skills required in either batting or bowling, and fitness, as such, was largely concentrated on endurance.
With the fitness frenzy only bound to get more manic, the chances of another cricketer like Herath making his way to the top are quite slim. Herath should be cherished. He is the last of his kind.
The game evolved thereafter. Herath didn’t. As Twenty20 cricket made agility, speed and sharpness imperative to be a successful cricketer, Herath continued as a throwback to a lost time. Remarkably, he was as effective as ever, in all formats of the game, and even became Sri Lanka’s beacon, especially following the retirements of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene.
Since Murali called time from Test cricket in 2010, Herath has picked up 261 wickets in 51 Tests at 26.21. Only Stuart Broad and James Anderson have more scalps in this period, having respectively played 19 and 20 matches more than him. In this period, he has 22 five-wicket hauls, 15 of them coming in winning causes. R Ashwin, with 18 five-wicket hauls in all, is the closest to him in that respect.
All the while, modern scribes and fans alike wondered how a man so physically different from the rest of the playing pack could prove so effective. The likes of Inzamam, Ranatunga and Boon had long since retired, but here was the relic of a lost age, carrying on as though he was just like the rest of them.
Yes, there were more jibes at his shape, but cricket, in comparison to other sports, was less harsh to its outliers. When Gonzalo Higuain turned up for Juventus in a pre-season friendly against West Ham earlier this month, having gained some holiday weight, the scorn raised on social media was intense. Of course, it didn’t help that he had only weeks back secured a £75.35m transfer from Napoli to Juventus. “They paid 94 million for him and he’s arrived as a little pig,” was how Robert Prosinecki, the former Real Madrid and Barcelona midfielder, put it. Fat Frank (Lampard), Fat Ronaldo (the original Brazilian striker) and Fat Maradona… footballers have been at the receiving end, no matter how big a player they might have been.
In the ongoing Rio Olympics, Alexa Morales, the Mexican gymnast, found her appearance under the scanner, for apparently being overweight. Marion Bartoli, the 2013 Wimbledon winner, also had to put up with body shaming on social media and by John Inverdale, the BBC presenter whose comments on her appearance landed him in hot water. It also has to be noted here that for women, body-shamers don’t just stop at weight.
However, don’t mistake this for a piece about how unnecessary fitness is in sport. That is far from reality. Such is the landscape of sport these days that fitness is one of the first attributes required in an aspiring youngster. And there’s no bigger proponent of it in modern cricket than Virat Kohli. He has involved science in his workout, including everything from altitude masks to TechnoShape, he never wavers from his well-planned diets and puts a premium on good and sufficient sleep.
“When you become fit, you feel you can do anything,” Kohli had said late in June. “I will give you one example. I was never a quick fielder. I was never willing to field in every position. But after becoming fitter, lighter and stronger, I overcame all those doubts I had (about fielding). Now it (staying fit, eating right) has become second nature to me.”
So serious was Kohli about fitness that as captain of Royal Challengers Bangalore, he dropped the talented Sarfaraz Khan, the 18-year-old batsman, from the playing XI for his lack of agility. Instead, the hard-working and lot more functional Sachin Baby was brought in his place.
It is a trend across sports. One of the first things Pep Guardiola did after taking over at Manchester City earlier this year was to institute a ‘fat camp’. Simply put, the pioneer coach banned sugary drinks and pizza from the menu at their training complex, and stated that no overweight player would be allowed to train with the first team. Antonio Conte at Chelsea also banned unhealthy food, evening doing away with the team’s post-match pizza tradition, and reports suggest Juventus have put Higuain on a strict diet to get him fit in time for the season. Similarly, Novak Djokovic has credited his incredible form since 2011 to his decision to change to a gluten-free diet. He has since conquered everything put in front of him.
All this isn’t to say that Herath, at this late stage in his career, should start focusing on fitness. Not in the least. Instead, scribes should now focus on doing away with the prefixes pointing to his figure. With the fitness frenzy only bound to get more manic, the chances of another cricketer like Herath making his way to the top are quite slim. Herath should be cherished. He is the last of his kind.
|Top five left-arm spinners in Tests|
(New Zealand, ICC)
|Bishan Singh Bedi (India)||1966-1979||67||266||14/1||28.71|